I went to the shore
With some friends
and sat on the beach
to the waves
in front of me
and the streets of Asbury Park
My mind started to wander.
I used to live on the Jersey Shore…
was just a quick summer destination
For newly-licensed teenagers —
An escape from the inland suburbs.
What did my friends know
of these beaches?
What did they know know of this sand
losing its heat into the night?
What did they know
of these waves
against the jetties?
This wasn’t just “the shore.”
This wasn’t just cool sand
on a summer beach.
This is where I had been a child.
My family lived on the Jersey shore in the 1950s, before my father died — in 1958, when he was all of 37 years old.
Until then, and for a few years after, we lived in a blue/grey clapboard house in an upscale, rural New Jersey enclave called Rumson. The town traced its origins all the way back to the 1600s, when some distant descendants of the Pilgrims bought the land from the natives in exchange for “some rum.” After the trade, the new owners proceeded to get so drunk on whatever was left of their stash that they slurred the consonants when they named their new home town.
Rumson is situated on a peninsula between two rivers: The Navesink to the north and the Shrewsbury to the south. On a clear day, we could see New York City (Look! The Empire State Building!) as we crossed the Sea Bright Bridge to the long strip of sand that was all that stood between where we lived and the pounding Atlantic Ocean.
It was all “Jersey Shore” from there. Drive down that strip and ten miles farther down that road you come to Asbury Park — the town that a kid from Freehold named Bruce would make famous in the 70s.
But none of that had happened yet. Sitting in the cool sand that night in the summer of ’69, I started to recall my own countless memories of Asbury Park and life in the 1950s on the Jersey Shore.
A lot of those memories involved my grandparents. My father’s parents. Dorothy and William. We called them Mama and Papa, because that was all my older brother could manage to say when he first tried to say “Grandma” or “Grandpa.” They lived in New York, in an elegant apartment on Central Park West, and they came out to see us in Rumson several times a year. They took us to Asbury Park. In the summer we’d ride the merry-go-round, in the winter we’d go ice skating at a rink called the Casino.
My family belonged to a beach club a little north of Asbury Park in a town called Elberon. The Elberon Bathing Club — with its grey wood decks around a salt-water pool and white wooden cabanas — was the beach club for the Jews. We spent every day of every summer there, with all the other Jews. The old ladies played Mah-Jong. Those old ladies then were probably the age that I am now.
In the mornings, a barrel chested, white-haired man we called “Coach” taught us how to swim. His big hands stretched on the surface of the water, beckoning our little hands with each successive stroke as he stepped slowly backward through the shallow end of the pool.
In the afternoons — after we’d waited the requisite 15 or 30 minutes after lunch so that we wouldn’t suffer cramps — we ran across the hot grey sand to the edge of the surf, tip-toeing carefully over the layer of sharp-edged mussel shells between the sand and the sea, and then rode the waves on inflated air mattresses. Lying on our mats, waiting for the next wave, we imagined England just over the horizon — until we looked at a map and discovered that at that latitude, we were more likely across from Africa.
My father died from cancer at the ridiculously young age of 37.
And then the visits from our grandparents from New York became less frequent. The family legend says my grandfather lost his mental moorings when his only son died. Not long after, William and Dorothy gave up the swanky apartment in New York, joined the modern diaspora, and followed all the other old Jews from New York to Florida.
Four years after my father died, my mother found a new husband — an attorney who wanted to live in the city. They compromised and in the summer of ’62 we moved from idyllic, bucolic Rumson to Maplewood — a perfectly named suburb, where they’d cut the trees down and named streets after them.
Rumson wasn’t like that. Rumson had the sort of character a town takes on from its proximity to water, where the rivers and the ocean are just as much a part of the lifeblood as paved streets and sidewalks. Rumson had boats and sailing parties in the summer. It was just over a bridge from the ocean. Maplewood was just hills and trees, streets and houses — and cars. And borderline juvenile delinquents driving too fast through their adolescence.
Rumson was only an hour — maybe 40 miles — from Maplewood. But once we’d made the move, we rarely went back. Over the next couple of years the whole idea of Rumson — the town where I’d grown up, the town where I went to nursery school and kindergarten and elementary school, the town where my father had lived, where he had taken me out to the football field to see Sputnik arc cross the night sky — that place took on the quality of a place that we could never return to. Rumson may still have been on the on the map, but it may as well have been on a different planet.
Before we moved, at the end of the school year in 1962, the senior class of the Rumson High — the school that I would never go to — mounted a production of the newly popular Lerner and Lowe musical “Bridgadoon.”
Brigadoon tells the story of an old town in the Scottish Highlands that isn’t on any maps because it magically appears for only a single day out of every 100 years. At the end of each of those days, the townfolk go to sleep, and wake up… 100 years later.
Seeing that story for the first time in the spring of 1962, at age 11-going-on-12, in the in 5th-grade-going-on-6th — literally, it turns out, on the cusp between childhood and adolescence — made some kind of a lasting impression on me.
There is a passage in “Brigadoon” where one of the townsfolk describe their hundred-year nights, the kind of strange, ungraspable dreams that possess anybody who is asleep for 100 years.
And that’s how it all felt to me.
Returning to The Shore in the summer of 1969 was like returning to the site where Brigadoon had once stood.
What did my friends from the suburbs know of these places?
My friends were all
on the Jersey shore
But I was trying
to find a way back
through the misty outskirts
©2016 Paul Schatzkin / email@example.com